Opinion: GOP leaders have to sell immigration reform to base

The biggest stumbling block to immigration reform is no longer politics. It is how to market the deal to conservatives.


The deal is done in both the House and the Senate. All that is left is for Republicans to make a show of being tough on undocumented immigrants.

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The hard sell to the Republican base will be evident in the House version. It will feature a “hard trigger” that blocks citizenship if the government does not implement electronic verification — E-Verify — allowing employers to check on the immigration status of workers.  

While the Senate bill prohibits the newly legal from being eligible for ObamaCare,  the House bill is tailored to appeal to hard right sensibilities. It bans all entitlement benefits and forces the undocumented to admit they broke the law. 

The Democrats and President Obama will have to sell the quasi-judicial admission of guilt and the hard trigger to their base. But the GOP sales job is the one that will make or break this Congress’s attempt at passing immigration reform.

In the last week, the focus of the amendments to the Senate bill has been on demands from the right for more border security. But Democrats have resisted. They point to already high levels of border security. And they absolutely reject the idea of a trigger that blows up a pathway to citizenship if there are problems with added security.

The House, however, needs something to sell its base. E-Verify with a “hard trigger”  is the added touch to seal the deal. 

There is some politics involved for the GOP. They still have to persuade their base that passing an immigration bill is on their terms and no victory for President Obama.

David Axelrod, who ran Obama’s successful campaigns, said a month ago the GOP base is beset with “paranoia” about passing an immigration bill. While the Republicans want to repair ties to the rising Hispanic electorate, they also know, as Axelrod put it: “This is a legacy item for [President Obama].” And the GOP, he said, does not want to give the president “this accomplishment.” 

That fits with Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) assessment after the defeat of the gun control bill that Republicans did not want to “be seen helping the president.”

That is why the conservative House bill is so important. It is the bill that conservatives have to rally behind as “Not Obama’s Bill.”

There will be bills in place by the end of the month. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last week he plans to have the bill on the floor for debate and a vote next month. 

“Although immigration is a complex and controversial issue that deserves ample time for thoughtful debate and consideration,” Reid explained, “it is also too important to delay action any longer.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) plans to match Reid stride for stride. The Speaker’s objective is to prevent the Senate dictating the outcome of the immigration fight by setting the terms of the debate with a bill passed far in advance of the House.

Last week, the Speaker said he is tired of waiting for the House’s bipartisan Gang of Eight to put the final touches on a bill. “I know there are some very difficult issues that have come up and I continue to believe that the House needs to deal with this,” he said. Then he declared his bottom line as the voice of conservatives on Capitol Hill: “The House needs to work its will.”

The Speaker needs something to consolidate conservative support or, as he put it, to give Republican “stakeholders” something positive, something to support. His goal is to prevent another grassroots revolt on the right, akin to the one that scuttled immigration reform in 2007. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats also agree that 95 percent of the deal for immigration reform is in place in the House. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), a member of the House gang, is on the record as saying “we’re so very close.” But House Democrats are not in any hurry to help the Republican majority in the House get ahead of the Democratic majority in the Senate by being first to establish the outlines of a deal. 

At the end of the last week, the biggest concern for two leading Republican members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight was keeping a deal in place. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) voted with Democrats to stop a hard-right amendment that threatened the bipartisan alliance.

They broke with their own party after Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) suggested adding biometric tracking to the deal.  Sessions thinks biometric scanners are a sure winner with conservatives who want more and more border security. 

But the Democrats have said “enough,” particularly to the added cost of switching to a biometric system. And Flake and Graham are invested in getting a bill to the floor and into conference with the House. Their strategy is to prevent Democrats from blaming Republicans for killing immigration reform in the Senate.

Once the House begins negotiations with the Senate, then the real GOP sales pitch can get going. Welcome to the salesroom.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.